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Contradiction and Paradox

Renewing Your Mind / R.C. Sproul
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April 9, 2022 12:01 am

Contradiction and Paradox

Renewing Your Mind / R.C. Sproul

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April 9, 2022 12:01 am

Does the Bible contradict itself, as some people claim? Today, R.C. Sproul explains the difference between a contradiction and a paradox to help us respond to these accusations against our faith.

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Today, on Renewing Your Mind. As we continue now with our study of apologetics and the art of defending our faith, we've been looking at those principles of knowledge or of epistemology that are so important that we ought never to negotiate them as we are defending the faith, because these are the principles that are negotiated frequently by atheists and those who are cynical or skeptical about Christian theism. Now as we proceed beyond those four that I mentioned before, the law of non-contradiction, the law of causality, the basic reliability of sense perception, and lastly the analogical use of language, we now enter into an area that is concerned with these principles of knowledge where there is a vast sea of confusion, because there are three terms in the English language that are used many times as if they were synonyms when in fact they are not and need to be distinguished from one another clearly. And those three concepts are these, the concept of contradiction, paradox, and mystery. These ideas are so closely related to each other that it is easy for us to get them confused.

And when we get them confused, we get into a whole lot of trouble. Not too long ago I read an article written by a professor of philosophy who was not only rejecting Christian theism but ridiculing it, saying that at the heart of historic Christianity we find the doctrine of the Trinity. And he was saying in his essay that he couldn't understand how any rational person could embrace Christianity precisely because of its doctrine of Trinity. And then he went on to say that the idea of the Trinity is absurd, it's ridiculous, because it violates the law of contradiction. That was the charge, that the doctrine of the Trinity violates logic and the law of non-contradiction.

I was really surprised to see that in that particular essay, not that people would make fun of Christianity or accuse of it as being irrational, I mean you hear that all the time, nor was it a surprise to me that somebody would say that the doctrine of the Trinity is contradictory. What surprised me was that the charge that the doctrine of the Trinity is a contradiction was leveled by a professor of philosophy. Now I realize that people can be educated in America and indeed achieve their PhDs in various subjects in America without ever having a single course in logic. In fact, most institutions of higher learning no longer require logic as a necessary course.

But I can't imagine getting a graduate degree in the field of philosophy without having at least an introductory course in logic and be at least basically familiar with the law of non-contradiction. And if this professor of philosophy had had an elementary course in logic, he should have understood at least that the Christian doctrine of the Trinity is not a contradiction. It does not violate the law of non-contradiction because the doctrine of the Trinity says this, that God is one in essence and three in person.

That's the classical formula for the Trinity. God is one in essence, or one in substance, and three in person. And so if we break that down, we would say that God is one in A and three in B.

We're saying that with respect to one qualification, He has unity, but with respect to a different predicate, He has diversity or plurality. Now if we said, for example, that God were one in essence and three in essence, then indeed we would be violating the law of non-contradiction. Or if we said that God was one in person and three in person, likewise we would be violating the law of non-contradiction. But to say that He is one in one thing and three in another thing is not to violate that particular law of reason. Now maybe I ought to refresh our memories with respect to the definition of the law of non-contradiction so that we can be at least more careful than this particular professor of philosophy was in our dealing with these questions.

The law of non-contradiction simply stated says that A cannot be A and non-A at the same time and in the same way or the same relationship. That is something cannot be what it is and not be what it is at the same time and in the same sense. Now I can be a father and a son at the very same time without violating any law of reason. But I cannot be a father and son at the same time and in the same relationship. I cannot be my own father. I can be the father of my son, nor can I be the son of my son. I can only be the son of my father. So I, with respect to one relationship, with respect to my father, I am a son. And with respect to another relationship, I am the father to my son.

So I am both a father and a son at the same time. But the key, see, is the second part of the descriptive clause, not in the same sense or in the same relationship. I like to tell the story of a German theologian that we had in seminary who was the grandson of a world-famous theologian from the 19th century. And we were in our class one day, and this German professor of theology made this remark. He said, gentlemen, God is absolutely mutable in His essence, and God is absolutely immutable in His essence. And there was a holy hush come across the class.

And you could hear guys groaning, that's heavy, that's deep stuff. And the students walked out of that classroom in awe of the brilliance of the professor because they made this assumption. They said, we can't understand what he's saying, but he obviously must be able to understand it, so he must be far more brilliant than we are.

And I was standing out in the hall laughing, and they said, what are you laughing at? What did he just say? I said, there's a nonsense, David, that's absurd what he's saying in there.

Well, how could you? I said, you can get people to believe anything if you strike the proper pose and, you know, furrow your eyebrow and speak in hush terms and say, God is absolutely mutable in His essence, and He's absolutely immutable in His essence. And I've said, I might as well have just stood there and said, because I have just made an unintelligible statement. If God is absolutely mutable or changeable, essentially changeable, He cannot at the same time and the same way be unchangeable. It reminds me also when Paul Tillich was lecturing in Chicago, and he had developed his concept of God as the ground of being. And in his lecture about God's being the ground of being, he said, we cannot attribute human terms like personality to God because God is neither personal nor impersonal, but He is the ground of personality. And one of the students raised their hand, Dr. Tillich, and he said, what? He said, is the ground of personality personal or impersonal?

And Tillich became enraged. I told you that it was neither, but the point is it has to be one or the other because the term impersonal means by definition everything outside of the category of the personal. So in that case, something must be either personal or impersonal. Could it be both at the same time in the same relationship?

No. That's why we have the law of non-contradiction. Now, what we have with the doctrine of the Trinity is not a violation of the law of contradiction, but what we have here is a paradox.

So let's look at that second concept there that we have on the board, the paradox. Now, if we break this word down, well, I'll come back to contradiction in a moment, but we look at the paradox and we examine the word linguistically, we see that what we have here is a prefix and a root, and the prefix para or para means from the Greek language that which is alongside something else. We take the word para boleo, which means literally to throw something alongside, and we get the word parable, when Jesus told stories to illustrate His point, He would give His message and then He would throw the story alongside to illustrate it. That's what a parable is. You've heard of paramedics or paralegals or paraministries.

These are agencies or persons who work alongside somebody or some other institution. So that's what we see in the prefix para means beside or alongside. Now, the root that is here dox comes from the verb in Greek dokain, which means to seem, to think, or to appear. Now, this word has a very important significance in early church history. One of the most virulent heresies to threaten first-century Christianity was the heresy growing out of Gnosticism called docetism or docetism, some people call it, which taught from a Greek perspective that Jesus didn't really have a physical body or a real human nature, because the great scandal to the Greek was not the resurrection but the incarnation. Because in Greek categories, that which is spiritual, if ever it is brought in contact with the physical, would be contaminated, because that which is physical is by its very physicality imperfect. And so the Greeks couldn't understand this Jewish idea of God, a spiritual being, taking upon himself a human nature and uniting with a human nature that included a body. And so these people were saying in the early church that Jesus didn't really have a human body. He only seemed to have a human body. He appeared outwardly as if he had a human body.

But really that was an illusion because he did not have a human body. Now, you remember how John responds to that in his Epistles when he talks about the Antichrist. And what is it that the Antichrist denies? That Christ has come, katasarka, in the flesh. This he says is the spirit of the Antichrist. So this theory of docetism that denied the reality of the human body of Jesus was considered by the New Testament writers to be not just heretical, but of the Antichrist himself.

So it's the same word here, which means to seem, to think, or appear. And so what we get for a definition is that a paradox is that which at first glance or first hearing seems to be contradictory. It appears as a contradiction, but if you afford it the benefit of the second glance and examine it more closely, you realize that it in fact is not a contradiction. Jesus says you have to lose your life in order to find it.

Well if he means you have to lose it at the same time and the same way that you find it, he would be speaking nonsense. But what our Lord was saying is that in one sense or in one way you have to lose your life in order to find it in another sense. There are many such paradoxes in the teaching of the New Testament, and particularly in the teaching of Jesus.

We have to die in order to live, but that means that we die in one sense in order to live in another sense. And so these statements can be jarring the first time we hear them. If we look at them carefully, we see that they are not paradoxical. Now I'll grant that our formula for the Trinity when we say that God is one in essence and three in person, the first time we hear it may sound contradictory.

But if we examine it, subject it to the actual rules of logic, we will see it passes the test with flying colors as it were. Now this distinction between contradiction and paradox historically is a clean distinction that if we understand the difference between the two words, we shouldn't stumble into the difficulties that many people do. Unfortunately there's another term that I haven't put up here on the board that tends to muddy the waters, particularly for Christians, and that's the word antinomy. Now many Christians have never heard the word antinomy, which may be an indictment because it may reveal that they've never read much of J.I.

Packer's works, particularly his Evangelism and the Word of God, or Sovereignty and the Word of God, and his even more famous work Knowing God, because in both of these he has used the term antinomy in a way that has really shaken up his American readers because he uses the term antinomy in a way that British people will tend to use it that is different from how it is classically used in the United States, giving credence to the old adage that we the British and the people of America are two people separated by a common language. But in classic philosophy the term antinomy means the exact equivalence to the word contradiction. That is, in classic philosophy an antinomy is a contradiction. And Dr. Packer frequently speaks in his books about the presence of antinomies in the Christian faith. I don't know how many times I've run into that with my students in seminary who will say, but Dr. Sproul, Dr. Packer says that the Bible has antinomies and the Christian faith has antinomies in it, and the first time I heard that I thought I just can't imagine that he would say that. And so I had the opportunity to ask him about it, and I asked him, are you using the term antinomy as a synonym for contradiction, or are you using it as a synonym for paradox? And he hastened to respond by saying he meant by that term paradox, not contradiction.

So with that having been said, we can continue. Historically, antinomy and contradiction are equals. They just are derived from two different language. Contradiction, again, it comes from the Latin. Contra is the prefix, which means against.

Dicchio, to speak or to say. So literally a contradiction is speaking against something. It becomes even more clear when we analyze the word antinomy, because this comes from the Greek. Onti is the prefix, which means against.

You've heard of the antichrist, who works against Christ. And the root here is the Greek word nomos, which is the Greek word for law. So an antinomy literally is against law.

What law do you suppose is in view in the origin of this word? The law of non-contradiction. So that an antinomy is a violation of the law of non-contradiction and therefore is a contradiction. So both of these terms, historically and classically, contradiction and antinomy mean the same thing.

Unfortunately, in our day, because of the confusion that persists out there, they are used differently, and so often antinomy will be used as a substitute or an equivalent for paradox. Now, we will continue this examination in our next lesson to see how these relate to this concept of mystery, because that's extremely important for us as Christians to understand if we're going to be able to defend the truth claims of Christianity against the critics of our age. It's imperative that we recognize and avoid religious-sounding reasoning that is in fact irrational. That's why we believe this series by Dr. R.C.

Sproul is so important. It's called Defending Your Faith, an in-depth study of classical apologetics. There are 32 messages in this series covering everything from the laws of logic to the important philosophical concepts that shape our thinking. We'd like to send you the special edition set when you give a donation of any amount to Ligonier Ministries. You can reach us by phone at 800-435-4343, or you can go online to And if you're planning to use this series in a Sunday school or small group setting, we're also including a 12th bonus disc that has the MP3 audio files of the series and a PDF of the study guide. That guide has additional reading suggestions, study questions, and an outline of each message. We'll send you all 12 discs when you call us today with a gift of any amount. Our number again is 800-435-4343, or if you prefer, you can go online to make your request at And if you're interested in learning more about apologetics, let me suggest that you download Ligonier's free app.

You can search through thousands of resources from R.C. Sproul, our Ligonier Teaching Fellows, and other trusted Bible teachers and pastors. Whether you're at home or on the go, trustworthy teaching is always within reach.

To download the app, simply search for Ligonier in your app store. Well, we recognize today that many use contradictions in the Bible as a way of holding Christianity at arm's length, but others see mystery as a stumbling block. Join us next week as Dr. Sproul helps us find the balance between holy awe and holy certainty. That's next Saturday here on Renewing Your Mind. .
Whisper: medium.en / 2023-05-09 15:09:03 / 2023-05-09 15:16:30 / 7

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